Benicio del Toro isn’t a stranger to playing complex characters. From his Academy Award-winning role as Mexican police officer Javier Rodríguez in “Traffic” to his Academy Award-nominated role as born-again ex-convict Jack Jordan in “21 Grams,” del Toro’s characters over the last few years have had a heartbreaking depth to them.
In his newest film “Things We Lost in the Fire” – which could possibly garner him his third Oscar nomination – del Toro plays Jerry Sunborne, a former lawyer turned heroine addict whose only friend in the world, Steven Burke (David Duchovny), is murdered during an altercation in a parking lot.
The tragedy thrusts Jerry into the life of Steven’s wife Audrey (Halle Berry), who never understood why her husband cared so much for a man who threw everything away for drugs.
Although del Toro had never seen any of director Susanne Bier’s films, which include “Brothers” and “After the Wedding,” he was quickly taken in by the script, which was written by first-time screenwriter Allan Loeb.
“I felt something when I read the script,” del Toro, 40, told me during press day at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
When he finally met with Susanna and saw her movies, del Toro said she was someone he definitely wanted to work with.
“I saw that the themes of the movie…were going to be treated serious,” del Toro said. “Then Halle Berry jumped in and got everything rolling.”
To portray a man battling a drug addiction, del Toro said he met with a doctor who was an expert in addiction and spoke to recovering addicts when he attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He also read literature on the subject, including “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, and incorporated real-life experiences he has had with friends who have had drug problems.
“I came to Susanna with a bunch of ingredients,” del Toro said. “You draw from life. That was my recipe for my research.”
Although many of the themes were serious in nature, Halle Berry said working with del Toro proved to be amusing since he was always making her laugh on set.
“When you have Benicio del Toro around, you cannot really get too heavy about anything because he has a wonderful way of finding the funny in every situation,” Berry said. “It was really nice to sit back and watch that. That added some lightness throughout the day.”
Even a tense scene between del Toro and Berry didn’t seem to phase the duo. In the scene, Jerry is supposed to lean in to kiss Audrey, a scenario that was not in the first draft of the screenplay.
“[The kiss] was not scripted,” del Toro said. “We were doing [the scene] without the kiss and there was something not working. Susanna was not too happy with how it was going. Then she came up and said, ‘I think you should try to kiss her’ and I said, ‘Don’t mind if I do.’”
Currently, del Toro is shooting two films – “The Argentine” and “Guerilla” –based on the life of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Both easily seem like Oscar-baited roles, of course, but does winning awards really matter to the Puerto Rico-born star?
“It’s an honor to be part of that tradition and to be part of the books and to be recognized for what you do,” del Toro said. “But you don’t [act] to [win awards]. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t…kick and scream.”